The incarcerated need our compassion, too

by
09 August 2019

Binary thinking about criminals and victims, so prevalent in public discourse, should be challenged, argues David Kirk Beedon

“TO PUT it bluntly, we pray for murderers, and for abusers, before we pray for those whom they have harmed,” the Revd Dr David Wheeler asserted in this newspaper recently (Letters, 17 May). “If I was a victim, I do not think I would want the Church’s prayers like that.”

Viscerally, my heart sank when I read these words: they cut across what six years of experience in prison chaplaincy and more than five years’ research into the penal system have taught me. The view expressed is consonant with the binary thinking prevalent in much current public and political discourse. Set up in this way, there are dangers in formulating a counter-argument and being misunderstood to be someone who is uncaring about victims.

I wish to challenge, however, such binary ways of thinking about those convicted of criminal offences and their victims.

Our criminal justice system is premised on there being a victim and a perpetrator in every criminal act. Rightly so, the judicial system seeks to convict those who have committed a crime. That is the nature of criminal justice, and why the system is adversarial in nature and binary in thinking. When it comes to social justice, however, matters become more complicated. Where we allow the social context to be taken into account, the attribution of “victimhood” becomes far more problematic.

IN A global study of incarceration, A Sin Against the Future (Penguin, 1998), Vivien Stern, a former director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, observed: “Large numbers of [prisoners] are the neglected children of the urban wastelands.” To acknowledge that incarcerated human beings can themselves be victims is not an out-working of some bleeding-heart unworldly liberalism, but a brute fact. And to hold to that truth is not to be blind to the terrible impact that criminal offences can have on individual lives and communities.

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I confess that compassion’s bounds can be tested when ministering to those who have committed some of the most heinous of crimes. But, theologically, it is no accident that the parable of the Prodigal Son is the biblical story that most frequently resonated among those who attended study groups in the chaplaincy in which I ministered. It is a story of deep compassion stretched beyond the limits of where, in honesty, many of us would be prepared to go.

I have used the term “life-wounded” for the group of men among whom I conducted my research. Acknowledging that many of them come from backgrounds that have left them psycho-emotionally scarred is not to condone their criminal actions: many have siblings who suffered similar levels of abuse or neglect, but did not end up committing serious offences.

Yet as the moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum has noted: “It is perfectly consistent to treat a criminal . . . as fully responsible for his crimes, and yet to acknowledge with compassion the fact that he has suffered misfortunes that no child should have to bear.”

In the late 1990s, a health-care report in the United States, Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACEs] Study, highlighted the effects that childhood factors such as domestic violence, substance abuse in the home, and sexual abuse can have on life outcomes. On both sides of the Atlantic, the insights from this study have inspired ACEs-aware and trauma-informed approaches to care among young people who, as a result of these factors, often “act out” or “act up”, are expelled from the education system, and all too easily tailspin into the criminal justice system.

My research interviews were conducted among men serving an indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP). They did not know if, or when, they would ever be released. The wisdom of Proverbs highlights how diminishing of their humanity this was: “Hope deferred makes a heart grow sick. A desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” This was tragically proved as my work was inspired by the death in custody of a 28-year-old man described, in the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s report into his death, as “troubled”. Having spent time pastorally chatting to him, I knew that ACEs had been present in the lived experience of his young life.


I ARGUE for “custodial compassion”. The custody side of this equation is the realistic acknowledgement of the need to hold some people safe and secure — the “hard” stuff of gates, locks, fences, bars, and so on. Those in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, including chaplains, do this so that the victims of criminal acts get justice.

But we seek to do so with a compassion for those in our care and custody. This is best expressed as a deep humane regard for them as human beings who have all too often, in my experience, been victims of experiences that we would not wish on our worst enemies.

Binary thinking about victim/perpetrator often fails to do justice to the humanity of both. Both need our prayers as much as each other.

The Revd David Kirk Beedon was a prison chaplain from 2012 to 2018 and formerly a parish priest. He is completing his doctoral studies into pastoral care for indeterminately sentenced prisoners, and preparing a research report for the National Offender Management Service.

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